By, Lauren Safran, LCSW

A quilt is never just inter woven fabric. It’s an expression of joy, love, sadness, loss, and hope. It is the comfort of a warm embrace or a lasting memory. I became aware of the true power of this craft when asked by Postpartum Support International (PSI) to share the significance of their quilt.

This project was the brain child of Jane Honikman, founder of PSI. In 2001 she created the Call For Names Project to honor the memory of women who lost their battles with perinatal mood disorders. During the 2002  annual PSI conference, and every year since, the names of women have been read aloud. This both memorializes each woman and reminds us of the importance of reaching out before it is too late.

In 2005 Nancy Roberts, Michigan PSI coordinator, suggested the concept of creating a queen sized memory quilt. Jane and Wendy Davis, the Director of PSI, readily agreed. Nancy’s was passionate about this project, having lost her sister, Jane Leslie, to suicide. She had suffered a severe, undiagnosed and untreated Postpartum Mood Disorder. The creation was a family affair and a labor of love; Nancy’s mom donated the fabric and sisters’ Becky Keck and Sue Castor, along with sister-in-law Virginia Latz, earnestly knitted away. There is a photograph on the bottom of the quilt of Jane Leslie with her sisters. This beautiful piece of art was revealed for the first time at the commencement of the 2006 PSI conference.

Nancy managed the quilt’s journey to several maternal health events throughout the United States, until 2015 when Lianne Swanson, PSI’s office coordinator, became it’s new director of travel.  She has overseen it’s visits to multiple events across the country where facilitators and attendees share it’s moving presence.

Pearl Aviles-Taub, the Tucson Postpartum Depression Coalition president;  has used the quilt for various trainings, and stated that, “It’s a silent presentation” that is “very loud and inspires one to work on change for women and children.” 

Kelly O’Connor Kay, the development director for Maternal Mental Health NOW, displayed it at the 2015 ‘Speak Up When You Are Down Gala’ in Manhattan Beach, California. This event not only honors women and families affected by maternal depression and anxiety, but the treatment providers as well. The quilt has great meaning to her following the loss of a mom in 2010 who was connected to her organization. At the time we spoke she was working on the creation of an additional quilt in which to memorialize this woman. The painful reality is that that the first quilt no longer has space.

Kym Dunton, clinical nurse educator and coordinator of Women’s Health Strategy for Baptist Health in Jacksonville, Florida, first became aware of PPMD while attending a conference in Toronto in 2000. “During the event, the city experienced a tragedy that made headline news and shocked us all. One early morning a beautiful, smart, prominent Toronto physician, while holding her 6 month old in her arms, intentionally jumped in front of a train…. I followed the story and learned she was suffering from postpartum depression. That was the moment I knew I needed to be involved with PSI. Several years later, I attended my first PSI training in Chicago and I saw the beautiful quilt. In the top corner were the names of this mother and child. Tears flowed.” This past May Dunton used the quilt for an endowed lecture with keynote speakers, Dr. Wendy Davis and Valerie Plame Wilson, a former CIA agent who suffered from postpartum depression. As a secondary benefit she made a lasting connection with a Texas PSI volunteer who “went out of her way to ship it priority so it would make it in time for our event. 

Nancy Owen, an RN who runs a postpartum support group at Millard Fillmore Hospital near Buffalo, NY brought the quilt to the showing of The Dark Side of the Moon and then to the staff on the postpartum unit. She noted the quilt is both “somber and precious. It takes your breath away. There’s a sense that it’s sacred to those in whose charge it is”. She described her great concern for it’s careful packing and safe arrival at the next destination. 

The most heartrending discussion about the meaning of this quilt happened when I spoke on the phone with Donna Kreutzer, who runs the Pregnancy and Postpartum Alliance of Texas. She used it for a Postpartum Depression Awareness Month event, a May commemoration she helped pass through legislation in the summer of 2015. She recalled, “The minute I opened the box and pulled back the packing I was totally overwhelmed with a plethora of emotions…. My only child was unable to survive the severe postpartum depression/borderline psychosis she greatly suffered with for over 5 1/2 months, and unfortunately she ended her life on October 1, 2010. While initial “feelings of loss, sadness, and heartache flooded over, my heart quickly became filled with the love and peace and beauty that was woven with each and every stitch, signifying the honor and memory given to these beautiful women who were so tortured with this horrific mental health issue.” 

I was struck by the multiple ways this quilt is impactful. It is a silent tool, both visual and tactile, that provokes an emotional awareness, at times stronger than the spoken word. And it creates a bond between those in charge of it’s arrival and departure. Together they spread it’s message while ensuring a safe journey for this sacred memento.

Reading about the women behind the embroidered names is difficult. They are our sisters, our daughters, our friends. For many, they are us but for the treatment and support that helped us heal. We have hope that there will come a day when there is no need for new stitches. Awareness, destigmatization, and the impact of the woven memory will help to make this possible.

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